Dust in the Wind
Written by T’ien-wen Chu and Nien-Jen Wu
Directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien
If you have never seen a Hou Hsiao-hsien film, Dust in the Wind (1986) is the perfect starting point. Preceding the Taiwanese historical dramas he is best known for—City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993), Good Men, Good Women (1995)—Dust is the most assured work of Hou’s early career, and one of the best examples of Taiwanese New Wave Cinema.
A coming-of-age film, Dust in the Wind tells the story of Wan (Chien-wen Wang) and his girlfriend, Huen (Shufen Xin), and their move to the big city in order to make money for their families, and to save for marriage. As expected, they have their struggles, with their ultimate test coming when Wan enters the military. If, narratively, this all sounds a little straight forward, that’s because it is—but, by no means is Dust a minor work. With an attention to detail accentuated by a pitch-perfect aesthetic, ordinary moments are made intricate and engaging; and the results speak for themselves: Dust in the Wind is the first great film of Hou’s career. (Not to take anything away from the preceding titles: they are all good—with this writer having a strong fondness for The Boys From Fengkuei (1983)).
A small shaky blip appears in the middle of the screen. It looks as if it is moving toward the camera, when in reality, the camera is moving toward it—the ‘it’ being the opening of a tunnel, and the movement being that of a train speeding down the tracks. As the opening enlarges, a dense forest fills the frame, and then it is eclipsed by another tunnel, and then another. Finally, the train re-emerges, the forest re-appears, and ever-so-softly, children’s voices are heard. The image is then held for 2-3 seconds before cutting two a medium close-up of Wan and Huen inside the train.
With this opening, Dust in the Wind announces itself as a work of subtle complexity. Right away, the contrast of the light/dark, interior/exterior of the train’s path becomes an important metaphor. For starters, it is a way to visualize the day-to-day grind of gaining awareness through experience, and learning to accept change as inevitable—and the metaphor applies to both the individual, and to Taiwan itself. Also, by opening the film with darkness and slowly expanding into light, images of the cinema come to mind and the way film transports the viewer to a new world—albeit, in this case, one where aspects of the real world will be represented and interpreted. In Hou’s films, this is everything. His work always strives for an accurate portrayal of everyday life, for if there is one aspect he is known for, it is realism.
Using static long takes, a repetition in shot selection, manipulation of on and off-screen space, editing, and a variety of audio and visual cues, Hou’s most expressive storytelling is in the details. Even if you have no idea what the characters are saying (which is somewhat the case on the subtitling for the Dust in the Wind DVD), his technique is designed around providing as much information and depth as possible.
Also, through realism, Hou looks to represent the past, often privileging the role of memory, and re-enforcing the ways in which the past is dependent on perspective. Though Dust in the Wind is set in one timeframe (the 1970s), the perspective is one of reflection: the act of looking back on one’s defining years. In this case, there is no present-day narrator; instead, reflection is induced through the staging of key, yet ordinary day-to-day events. Whether it is seeing a movie, or sharing a cigarette with a family member, each act is given equal weight, because each one develops a sense of place and time, and the value of learning from experience—not just for Wan, but also for the viewer.
Take for example a scene near the end of the film (SPOILERS). The set-up is basic: a medium long shot of multiple soldiers playing snooker. The image is cramped and chaotic, the camera is static, and several men move in and out of the frame. Wan is nowhere in sight. As the soldiers unskillfully smash the balls around, a conversation about the local brothel develops (their youthful arrogance is on full display), and when someone asks if Wan has been there, the big mouth of the group laughs and says “No, he doesn’t dare go. He’s saving it all for his Huen.” Then there’s a pause, and he continues, “She hasn’t written for two months. Ran away with someone else long ago.” The men then look off screen, and the camera cuts to Wan throwing up, his face obscured.
The moment is significant because we are not sure what is going on. Is Wan mad at the man? Is it true? Or is he fed up with being faithful? Prior to this, the last scene involving Huen consisted of Wan reading a loving letter she had sent, so when there is an abrupt cut to him being sick, our attention is peaked. When the information is finally revealed a few scenes later—when Wan is sitting amongst a pile of returned letters—we find out Huen has married the local Postman (seems fitting).
By staging the sequence this way, Hou maximizes the emotional impact, and plays with our expectations. Earlier, there are minor instances indicating the couple’s possible incompatibility—the way Huen is framed within bars when Wan visits her at work, the fact that conversations are cut before answers are given—but overall, it is a total shock to see their romance end in the manner it does.
So why the surprise? It ties back to the idea of experience coming from awareness. The viewer shares in Wan’s confusion, because it is a means for Hou to articulate the hardships inherent in Taiwanese society. Huen marries, not because she is in love, but to appease her parents, as they believe the man to have more status than Wan. However, the final image of the film—a beautiful landscape shot, complete with moving clouds—reveals Hou’s optimistic intentions, once again, stressing the importance of adapting change.